McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183 (1971)

In McGautha v. California, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that sentencing schemes granting capital juries unfettered discretion to determine whether a defendant should be sentenced to death did not violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As the Court explained, the jury represents the link between the community and the criminal justice system and, to perform its proper role, the jury must be free to express its desire for mercy. Standards to guide the jury’s discretion, the Court reasoned, would unduly limit the jury because countless factors could influence its sentencing decision. The Court further expressed its belief that it was impossible to devise a set of standards that would distinguish between death-worthy and nondeath- worthy crimes with precision. Previous legislative attempts to draw such a distinction had failed, largely because sentencing juries began to engage in jury nullification—ignoring the law in order to exercise mercy.

McGautha was effectively overruled one year later by Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), which held that unbridled jury discretion resulted in arbitrary and discriminatory sentencing decisions in violation of the Eighth Amendment. In Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), the Court subsequently ruled that legislatures must limit and guide the jury’s discretion as it determines whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty. But the Court later made clear that the government may not limit the jury’s ability to consider, and the jury may not decline to consider, any relevant mitigating circumstances that might justify a sentence less than death.

CELESTINE RICHARDS MCCONVILLE

References and Further Reading

  • Kirchmeier, Jeffrey L., Aggravating and Mitigating Factors: The Paradox of Today’s Arbitrary and Mandatory Capital Punishment Scheme, William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 6 (Spring 1998): 345–459.
  • Steiker, Carol S., and Jordan M. Steiker, Sober Second Thoughts: Reflections on Two Decades of Constitutional Regulation of Capital Punishment, Harvard Law Review 109 (December 1995): 355–438.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)
  • Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)

See also Capital Punishment: Due Process Limits; Capital Punishment: Eighth Amendment Limits; Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972); Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976); Jury Nullification in Capital Punishment; Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978)

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